Getting on the Flight / for Bliss Magazine Fall 2014 Issue by Amanda Oliver

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When I arrived at the airport my backpack was filled to its red cord-tied brim with tank tops, t-shirts, sweatshirts, shorts, hiking attire, no less than four pairs of sandals, and every other “necessity” I would need for fifty days of travel. There was also my duffel bag. At twenty-seven, I was finally going on my long awaited European summer adventure, and I had more than sufficiently overpacked.

Washington Dulles airport is large and has a Ben and Jerry’s. These are the only two things I remember about Washington Dulles Airport because I had something of a complete and blinding meltdown during my time in it. Shortly after tipping myself over to drop the red beast off of my back and onto the checked baggage conveyer belt at Icelandair, I sought out a favorite airport comfort: ice cream. Situated at a metal airport dining table, I listened to two happy couples in their late sixties discussing their three-week vacation. They, too, we’re headed to Iceland and beyond, but this is where our similarities stopped. They had each other. They had wedding bands and children and shared bank accounts, they had decades of experiences together, they had reassurance that if they got lost or mugged or just needed to talk, they could turn to each other. 

I had my Ben and Jerry’s.

My brain and body started to race with anxiety and fears. What in the world am I doing, getting on a plane by myself and planning this haphazard tour of ten European countries? Who do I think I am? I’m not eighteen anymore! How much money would I be losing if I just went to Iceland and came back home? I can just kick out my subletter, right? Gone entirely was the gumption my blue-collar family raised me with, and any feelings of capability were replaced by cynical tears salting my cup of Half Baked. 

I had been carefully planning my trip for six months, selecting cities, booking hostels and Air BNBs, and savoring the process of finding locals to complete work exchanges with. I was set to work at a medicinal garden in Balaguer, Spain, a farm in rural Hungary, and an older women’s house in Helmond, Netherlands, not far from a day trip to Belgium. I had five days along the Mediterranean in Nice that coincided with the Tour de France, there was a studio in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona with a desk at an open window just waiting for me, and I had even worked up the nerve to spend one night at a party hostel in Amsterdam before relaxing in a cozy AirBNB along the canals.

In short, I had planned well and there was much to be excited about, but fear got the better of me. Fear is of course congenial, regularly inviting worry and doubt to the party, too. An internal meltdown of disparaging thoughts commenced. Was I too old for this? Was I being reckless by spending my two months off from teaching traveling instead of finding summer work to save money? Would my nephew ever forgive me for missing his first birthday? Would I really be able to manage all of these planes, trains, automobiles, and strangers? 

There were no answers. There would never be answers unless I got on the plane. Shaking and doubtful, I huffed my duffel bag thirty rows back into coach and took my aisle seat. There was no wise older woman or seasoned traveler sitting next to me ready to dispense advice or regale me with stories of life-changing travel at my exact age, ala the perfect travel essay or movie. There was just me, sitting with fear. 

The fifty days I nearly didn’t experience changed my life, as travel so often does. When I arrived in London, I donated the top layer of clothing from my backpack. Every city I went to, I left something behind. A tank top, a pair of shoes, a bit more fear. On a ninety-five degree day in July at the very top of a mountain in Montgai, a small province in Catalonia, Spain, I stood on rocks with women from Lithuania and Australia I had met two days prior. Before the words could leave my own mouth, one of them turned to say, “I’m so glad we all made it here.”

Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken / Assateague Island, Maryland by Amanda Oliver

 photo by Katie Fielding

photo by Katie Fielding

My first summer in D.C., fully unprepared for multiple consecutive days of temperatures over 100 degrees, I asked co-workers and friends where the best nearby ocean beach was. Ocean City, Maryland was often the answer, so I rented a car that June and drove three hours to visit the popular vacation town. What I remember most from the day is salt water taffy, lines of shops filled with beach destination souvenirs, and getting knocked down by one particularly hefty wave. Mostly, I got the impression that in the height of summer the city and boardwalk happily rival Panama City or Daytona Beach during spring break. (Been there, done that, no thank you.)

Unbeknownst to me, a 37-mile barrier island with white sand beaches and wild horses was less than ten miles away. 

I finally learned about Assateague Island a year ago and it has been on my adventure list ever since. How no one told me about it before then leads me to believe that this magical place can still be truthfully labeled "tucked away". I made a visit to the Maryland side with my friend Katie last Sunday. Equipped with the first four episodes of NPR's new show Serial, we drove for just over three hours, and were immediately greeted by four of the island's 300 or so wild horses. 

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Despite several posted warnings not to touch, feed, or attract the horses, I watched each of the seven cars waiting to pull into the park roll their windows down and allow bold muzzles to say hello. It was hard to imagine them kicking or biting, but four years of horseback riding camp in middle school cautioned me otherwise—any animal we think we can make our pet often works double-time to prove their wildness.

We skipped a visit to the Bay-side marshes and made our way up and over the white sand dunes to Atlantic waves and whipping winds. No horses visited the beach, in my imagination they're a little over it, but we found a few more on the many pedestrian paths. The horses varied in size—some resembling Icelandic ponies with their short legs and round bellies, others with lengthier legs and more slender frames—presumably representing different breeds. The Assateague horses have roamed the beaches, forests, and marshes on the island since the 1600s when a Spanish galleon ship supposedly sank offshore. Having now met some of their descendants, it's easy to picture their watery escape to freedom.

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When I posted photos of the day on Instagram, several people commented with fond memories  from camping on the island. Maybe it takes a certain type of animal to discover this strip of land, but I don't doubt anyone can fall in love with it. It's a place to leave the world, or at least a life on any part of the mainland, behind for a while. To stare out at the Atlantic and watch the black dots of surfers enter waves. To feel the salty wind whip or grace your face, depending on the weather. To make eye contact with one of the wild horses long enough to start to give off a little wild from your eyes, too. Assateague feels like the outermost part of the East Coast (supposedly it's actually Lubec, Maine) -- like you can swim just a little ways out and be in some unnamed country where floating is all that matters.

Often it's the most beautiful places, places like Assateague, that leave me feeling like I still need to gather up something more inside of myself. More calm, more peace, more fresh air. Sometimes I can spend a whole day in nature and leave feeling this way. For whatever reason, maybe because I had a good friend nearby, maybe because the resilience of the wild horses reassured me of something in myself, I only needed a few hours to feel ready to leave. As we drove away the same four horses we met on the way in were blocking most of the way out, putting their hoofs down about being just that wild, just that free.

We need the tonic of wildness -- to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature."

-Henry David Thoreau, from Chapter 17 of Walden

Quiet Charm in Cumberland / for The Village by Amanda Oliver

Vancouver Island, British Columbia is a traveler’s dream: lakes, rainforests, mountains, glaciers, ocean, and more. It amazes me to think about all of the geographical wonders on one island in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a reason they called it “Beautiful British Columbia”. For a girl who grew up in a large city near Lake Erie, never seeing the ocean until she was fourteen, it’s something of a paradise. 

It’s a wonder, then, that my favorite place on the island is a street. It’s even more surprising that it’s a very quiet street in a town with a population of just over 3,000. But, after seven collective months spent exploring Vancouver Island, Cumberland has won me over more than everything and everywhere else.

Maybe it’s the blueberry fritters and cronuts (a croissant-donut pastry) at Cumberland Village Bakery or the sweet owners at Tarbell’s Deli who always engage me in conversation when my boyfriend and I make the trek up north from our home in Nanaimo. It could also be the allure of Delphine Flower & Garden in its small, but bold blue house with sustainably grown seasonal flowers hanging from the sides and organic offerings lining the sidewalk just out front. Mostly, it’s the way Dunsmuir Avenue, the main street of the village, has seemingly everything in its three blocks – a trendy hair salon, a coffee shack, a café located in an old post office, a deli and a meat shop, an organic market, a pizza parlor, an independent book store, a chocolate shop, a theater, a liquor store, a hostel, a vintage clothing shop, and more. I’ve lived in Buffalo, Brooklyn, and DC, traveled across most of Eastern Europe, and there isn’t an area I can think of in those locations that contains so many options with the charm and friendliness of Cumberland. 

Step into the side streets and you’ll discover an oversized food truck in the form of a double-decker bus with offerings of British-style Fish and Chips. Wander another street up and over and take in a colorful wall by local graffiti artist Gillian Brooks.

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Waking in the village, after dinner at The Waverly Hotel and a night of rest at the Riding Fool Hostel, is a peace reminiscent of a favorite childhood vacation spot. For me, it reminds me of the small cottage my family and I rented once a week every summer in a small town in Western New York. There is a quiet and stillness to the streets before the first coffee shop opens and, even then, it’s neighbors greeting neighbors and residents opening up shop or heading to work for the day. A quiet bustling I have found only one or two other places in several years of world travels. 

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Another wonderful thing about Cumberland? You’re a few minutes drive from Comox Lake and surrounded by mountain biking trails. Mountain bikes can easily be rented from Dodge City Cycles, which is also on Dunsmuir. The wilderness and geography of Vancouver Island is not lost to the village streets, Cumberland is nestled inside of it all.

If you find yourself on Vancouver Island, and you really should, consider breaking away from the trendy and heavily populated Victoria to the Comox Valley. When you make the first turn down Dunsmuir into the heart of Cumberland and spot The Grind coffee shack on your left, you’ll start to understand this village’s allure...and you may never want to leave.

Originally published on The Village. All photos by Nicholas Kupiak.

Hey Happy & Jam Cafe / Victoria, British Columbia by Amanda Oliver

Whenever Vancouver Island comes up back home in the states, anyone remotely familiar with the Island asks, "Victoria is there, right?" There are a lot of reasons Victoria is one of the only pieces of the Island outsiders know -- it's the capital of all of British Columbia, nearly half of Vancouver Island's residents live within its city limits, and the food, coffee, and shopping rival much larger cities.

Three weeks ago, I traveled from Nanaimo to Victoria for a weekday trip with my friend Carly. We ate a delicious lunch at Jam (try the Red Velvet Pancakes with cream cheese drizzle or The Charlie Bowl for something a bit more hardy) and, even though it was a Tuesday, there was still a line outside. There is always a line outside of this place. Thankfully, a table for two wasn't a wait! 

 Carly cruising the menu

Carly cruising the menu

 The Charlie Bowl for me, the vegetarian Huevos Rancheros for Carly

The Charlie Bowl for me, the vegetarian Huevos Rancheros for Carly

I'm kicking myself for not trying the Blueberry Lemonade Waffle on special, but it was a savory kind of morning. Next time!

After lunch we took a wander around the city and I spotted a hanging sign that said "HEY HAPPY" on it. I hadn't noticed it last time I visited Victoria and I checked with Carly, who used to live in the city and frequently returns for day visits, if she had seen it before. She answered that she hadn't and we popped over for a look. Inside, we were immediately greeted by one of the friendly baristas of Hey Happy Coffee. On the counter were a few bottles of cold brews and a glass jewelry case like holder for croissants, donuts, and other sweet options. Any place that values and displays treats like they would the Hope Diamond is OK with me! We were crunched for time, so I grabbed two bottled cold brews (they have a regular and a cherry-infused one -- it's only a slight flavor "Not Dr. Pepper coffee or anything" as the barista told me) and promised myself I'd be back.

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Last weekend, Nicholas and I came down to Victoria and I was more than excited to actually get to spend some time in the cafe this visit -- they have gorgeous wood seating built into the wall opposite the coffee bar, a small area to buy beans, mugs, and other coffee things, and some of the friendliest city cafe staff I've ever encountered. Not to mention the menu options...Coconut Milk Iced Latte, Mint Julep Espresso, Honey'd Latte (with local honey)...

We watched from our seats as they prepared beans specifically for Nick's iced coffee from the the day's brew sheet and concocted my Mint Julep Espresso. For snacks we grabbed a chocolate croissant and a vegan cookie and patiently waited for our drinks.

My mint julep espresso came in an adorable little chalice? metal shot glass? and was delicious. Hints of fresh mint and a perfectly made shot of espresso over ice. I'm no coffee expert, mostly it just gives me the steam I need to face life as the opposite of a morning person, but I've never tasted anything quite like it...and that's definitely a good thing. Nick's iced coffee was exactly what he needed after a three hour cyclocross adventure on his bike.

 Mint Julep Espresso

Mint Julep Espresso

 Photo by  Nicholas Kupiak

If you find yourself in Victoria (ferries run from Vancouver, Seattle, and Port Angeles daily) be sure to check out these two places in the downtown area. Your belly will thank you.

On Teaching and Learning / Washington, DC by Amanda Oliver

Sometimes they would come in for library and one student would announce for another: “John Paul’s plant died!” John Paul would start to cry and the other students would comfort him, “Daniela’s is turning brown, too.” They loved charting the growth and giving a daily report on whose plant had sprouted roots overnight and whose looked like it was dying. There were daily arguments for these three or four weeks and it was very little about the science of why for them. They were more interested in what was happening and who was “winning” than proving or disproving their original hypothesis (much to their classroom teachers dismay).

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